by Dr. Heather Domjan, Interim Executive Director, University of Houston STEM Center
The energy industry is engaged in a tug of war – it sees itself as playing a crucial role in helping mankind, while many Americans possess a deep-seated mistrust of oil and gas companies. That’s especially true of today’s school-age students.
According to Gallup, almost half of Americans (47%) had a negative view of the oil and gas industry in 2015, while just more than one-third (34%) viewed the industry positively. By 2017, the gap had narrowed, but negative opinions still topped positive ratings by 2%.
Public opinion has dampened energy companies’ ability to overcome misconceptions and differences in opinion. And young people may be their toughest audience, at a time when the industry is facing a growing demand for new workers.
Generation Z’s Perception:
Here’s the storyline for America’s youth:
- Coal was the fuel for their grandparent’s lifetime
- Oil and gas was for their parent’s generation, and
- Renewable energy is the future.
This should be a wake-up call for the industry, which must make members of Generation Z – definitions vary, but generally those between 2 and 19 – a priority, as these individuals have the ability to shape the future of energy through innovation. The complexity of this task becomes clear when you realize this generation may hold beliefs that are not necessarily substantiated by facts, contributing to the divide between supporters of the oil and natural gas industries and those whose concerns about climate change and the production of fossil fuels push them toward renewable energy.
EY last year surveyed U.S. consumers and energy industry executives about current perceptions of the industry with striking results, especially among teens. Generation Z described the industry as a “problem causer, rather than a problem solver.” More than half of teens – 56% — said the industry isn’t worth the damage it causes to the environment. Media coverage of oil spills and other accidents become ingrained in the minds of these young people and, over time, they have developed a one-sided mindset.
Teens are digital natives and when only 44% deem the energy industry a leader in technology and 41% consider it “innovative,” clearly there is a disconnect. Only 45% of teens surveyed said the industry is trustworthy.
It is difficult to overcome these negative images, especially when only 35% of teens believe your industry will be important for another century.
This disdain may originate from embedded misconceptions developed through exposure to various media. Young people want to find solutions to climate change, display responsibility through “green” actions and showcase their consumer power by using the premise of renewable initiatives to speak to government and industry regulations.
But these young people can miss the nuances of an argument. For example, teens often fail to note that although renewable energy is considered “clean” because solar and wind power don’t themselves generate greenhouse gases, it has other drawbacks, including that it is a variable source of energy, available only when the sun shines and the wind blows. Therefore renewable energy currently is usually supplemented with fossil fuels to meet consumer demands.
The insights from the EY survey should capture the industry’s attention, especially considering they are already up against the wall of time, with one-third of the energy workforce at retirement age.
So how can industry overturn this perceptional tide among young people? It has begun to fight back.
Energy Industry Response:
Investing in K-16 students – that is, those from kindergarten through higher education – is vital, but how can oil and gas companies obtain a return on their investment when identifying what action best works can takes months or even years?
Even with so many education programs encouraged and funded, in part, by the industry, Generation Z remains skeptical.
Time is of the essence for industry to re-evaluate its stance within K-16 education and make a calculated effort to ensure students are exposed to valid points on both sides of the discussion to debunk any falsifications. The industry must step up its efforts to collaborate with educational experts to forge a united front that ensures the message of transformative energy is appropriately delivered.
Social interaction will be key, too, recognizing that Generation Z will be tomorrow’s decision makers about critical energy issues. Students are exposed to many opinions as they surf the web’s turbulent waves , and if the energy industry is to get buy-in, it must continue to be visible.
There are options. A massive career awareness media campaign highlighting the variety of jobs within the industry could expose students to the possibilities. When was the last time you saw a commercial about careers in the energy industry?
Oil and gas companies are investing both money and manpower in America’s youth, but will the effort be enough to overcome the views Generation Z currently holds? Oil and gas companies invest in initiatives such as STEM programs and competitions that emphasize science, technology, engineering and math skills, diversity outreach, educator support, career awareness campaigns and community engagement. In Houston, home to dozens of both majors and independent energy firms, and elsewhere, company employees are encouraged to volunteer with schools as mentors and guest speakers.
Only time will tell; however, energy industry executives must remain in the game so college-bound students will consider the industry with confidence.
Dr. Heather Domjan is the Interim Executive Director of the University of Houston STEM Center as well as a clinical assistant professor in curriculum and instruction. She instructs classes on science pedagogy to future educators with a focus of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Dr. Domjan also serves as the Executive Director of the Science and Engineering Fair of Houston which is one of the largest STEM events in Texas.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.